The convent began to be constructed during the reign of Elizaveta Petrovna "in honor and glory of our Lord on the site where Her Majesty’s palace stood called Smolny." Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the chief court architect, designed and supervised the construction between 1748 and 1762. Rastrelli failed to complete the cathedral’s interior finishing and it remained incomplete for many decades.
The Cathedral remained incomplete for nearly 70 years and its condition increasingly deteriorated. Alarming cracks developed on its vaults, its high basements were flooded with water. The Dower Empress Maria Fedorovna, acting as the guardian of educational establishments often visited the Smolny Institute and was saddened to see it in derelict condition. It was she who suggested making it the cathedral of all educational establishments.
On July 20, 1835, Metropolitan Seraphim of Novgorod and St Petersburg consecrated the church in the name of the Resurrection of Christ. The northern chapel was dedicated to the righteous saint Elizabeth in memory of convent founder Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, and the southern one was devoted to St Mary Magdalene in memory of Empress Maria Fedorovna.
Smolny Cathedral was built in the Baroque style. Its walls, towers and domes abound with moldings and gilt details – lavish floral and foliate garlands, broken curve pediment and volutes. Two tier semicolumns and pilasters, elongated windows and doors emphasize the upward movement of the entire structure, which create a sense of weightlessness.
The Smolny convent became Rastrelli’s highest achievement. In keeping with the Russian tradition of building monasteries on the waterfront, Rastrelli located the monastic complex on the bank of the River Neva. Its plan is a Greek cross centered on a five-domed cathedral rising to a height of 93 meters. Efforts to collect liturgical objects were the reason why the bells for the bell tower had been cast in Moscow, and Rastrelli had the iconostasis design finished.